1780. The Recôncavo, Bahia. African-born slaves go to the forest to worship through music and dance. In chapter 32 of my novel I have attempted an imaginative reconstruction of the origins of Candomblé.
Ama: A Story of the
Atlantic Slave Trade by Manu Herbstein
paperback - 450 pages; published by [e-reads]; ISBN: 1585869325
Winner of the 2002 Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Best First Book
Nominated for the 2003 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
2003 Highway Africa/SABC Award for Innovative Use of New Media
When Ama returned from the cane fields the following Saturday it was already dark.
She strapped their rolled up sleeping mats onto Jacinta’s back. Esperança helped her to raise her basket to her head.
“We will be back tomorrow evening,” Jacinta told the old woman.
The others were waiting at the edge of the forest, shadowy shapes in the dark, murmuring quietly. Josef was going from group to group, peering into faces, making sure that they had no uninvited guests. Ama heard the bleating of a sheep. Soon they moved off into the trees, following the path up the hill, past the allotments.
“Keep close behind me,” Jacinta told her.
When they were over the brow, out of sight of the engenho, they paused while torches were lit. Then they pushed on through the light undergrowth. There were no paths here. Each followed the one before, trusting Olukoya, at their head, to lead them to the place. The torches cast grotesque shadows on the canopy above. The smell and feel of decaying leaves brought back memories of other journeys.
This is so like the African forest, Ama thought. Yet why is it, she pondered, that the trees and the wild animals are all different from ours?
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Ama was near the back of the file. When she entered the clearing, torches had been tied to the trunks of young trees and the men were lighting a fire. The women gathered on one side, spreading their mats and arranging their bundles and baskets. Ama unloaded Jacinta.
Every one talked in subdued tones; this forest, like all others, was full of spirits.
Ama looked around and counted. There were about thirty in the party, mostly adults, but one or two infants too. Ignacio Gomes, the cabra leather worker, a free man, half Tupi, half Kongo, was there. The rest were slaves and all of them were Africans; no other free men, no Crioulos, no mulattos, only blacks. Some boçal, mostly ladino, but all black.
Josef and Bernardo emerged from the enveloping darkness, bearing drums. Olukoya clapped his hands for silence.
“My brothers and sisters,” he said, “we have all had a long, hard day. We need to sleep so that we can awake refreshed in the morning. But before we retire for the night, let us first go and announce our arrival.”
There were calls of assent. They fell in at once behind the torch bearers and the three drummers. The shrine was close by, in another clearing. A stream wound its way past both. The sound of water tumbling over the stones would accompany their oblations.
An enormous tree, buttressed by its spreading roots, stood near the center, dominating the cleared space. They arranged themselves in a half circle around it.
“In our country,” Jacinta whispered to her, “our god Tempu lives in the tree we call nsanda. There are no nsanda trees in this place, so those who came before us made a home for Tempu in this one which is its brother. They call it gameleira branca,. The white flag is the way we dress nsanda. The ribbon around the trunk is for the Yorubas.”
The batá drums called for silence. Olukoya stood before the tree, barefooted and bare from the waist up. Gazing up into the dark canopy and then down into the space behind the roots he spoke a few sentences in Yoruba.. Then, to Ama’s surprise, Jacinta stepped forward, and raising her two stumps, addressed Tempu briefly in Ki-Kongo. Next to speak was Josef and this time Ama understood.
“Onyankopon Kwame, creator of all things, lord of the universe; Asase Yaa, spirit of the earth,” he intoned. “Your children greet you. We have come to tell you that we are here. Before dawn tomorrow we shall return to praise your name and to honor the spirits of our ancestors. Tonight we beg you to protect us as we sleep. Protect us from sasabonsam and all malevolent spirits which may live in this forest. Now we beg your permission to take leave of you. We shall go and come again tomorrow.”
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It was still dark when Josef gently shook Ama awake.
“Ama, come, we need your help. Sister Jacinta, it is time.”
As they walked towards the shrine, he explained, “We have only one sheep and two cockerels. That is not enough to allow all of us to make a sacrifice to our own gods. So each nation has selected one person to follow its own custom. Olukoya wants you to represent your people, even though you are only one.”
“What will I have to do?”
“If you like, say a prayer to your own gods and ancestors. Otherwise just watch and listen.”
In the flickering torch light Ama saw several objects which she had not noticed the night before. One was a solid clay cone, about waist high, with a small flattened top on which lay two pieces of iron. Another was the familiar Asante Onyame-dua, God’s tree, supporting a basin in its arms. Around the base of the gameleira, under its roots, was an array of pots and calabashes, some upright, some inverted.
The last object was a crude ladder-like framework of trimmed branches. A goatskin had been stretched across it to make a table top. On the skin lay cow horns, shells, a seed rosary, the red spurs and comb of a cockerel, an earthen dish full of clay with feathers and teeth protruding from it, stones, and cracked fragments of glazed pottery and mirror glass.
“That is Tempu’s altar,” Jacinta whispered. “Ama, pluck some leaves from this bush and lay them on it for me.”
Seven iron stakes had been driven into the earth around the altar.
“Mind the lances,” Jacinta warned.
There were six in their party.
Olukoya was their acknowledged leader. He had earned this status by virtue of his personal qualities; but there was more to it than that. As a young man he had been a novice in a shrine devoted to the performance of sacred rites in the service of Shangó, deified fourth king of Oyo. While he was in Oyo, Abiodun, the Alafin, had decided it was time to reassert the dwindling authority of his office by crushing the forces of his own military commander. Olukoya had become an innocent victim of the resulting civil war, ending up a slave upon a Portuguese ship.
There were only a few Yorubas at the engenho and even those were recent arrivals on the Bahian scene. But the power of their gods (four hundred and one in all, Olukoya said) was known far and wide. And Olukoya knew how to invoke that power. It was this knowledge which gave him such authority.
He lifted one of the pots and poured water from it onto the ground as he spoke.
“gate-keeper of the gods, intercessor for mankind,
“we come to you in peace, to greet you at this cross-roads,
“where the spirits of Africa meet those of this country, this Brazil,
“and the fierce god of the white man, Jesus-Mary-Joseph.
“We cool your brows with this fresh water from the river.”
Unseen drummers accompanied him, quietly, so as not to drown out his words.
“Take our humble messages, we beseech you,
“to almighty Olodumare, supreme amongst the gods,
“who gives the breath of life to man
“and seals our destiny;
“to Obatálá, creator, god of the overarching skies,
“whose purity of spirit, goodness and kindness know no bounds;
“to Shangó, lord of fire and tempest, essence of courage and of justice;
“and to his wives;
“to Oshun, river goddess of Oshogbo,
“goddess of love,
“who sustained us during the terrible journey across the great sea
“and brought us safely to these shores; and
“to Oya, mistress of lightning and the tornado and of sudden death.
“Take our words to Oshumare, serpent of the rainbow, messenger of Shangó;
“to Ogún, his brother, fearless god of iron and war;
“to Obaluaye, who with his broom can sweep the sesame seeds of pestilence
“over the face of the earth;
“to Orunmila, leopard, messenger of the gods, who knows all things,
“to whom there is no secret;
“Orunmila, who sat watching Olodumare as he made the universe;
“and knows the secrets of his laws.”
He paused to finger the beads of Orunmila’s necklace of divination which hung at his neck.
“Let our words fly to Yemoja, most fruitful of goddesses, mistress of the seas;
“and of chaste love between men and women.
“Yemoja, giver of children,
“we tie this ribbon about the trunk of this tree to ask you to bind us to you,
“as a mother straps her child upon her back.”
“We pour the blood of this black cockerel,
“to honor the spirits of our ancestors.”
Josef handed the squawking cockerel to him. He held it over the altar while Josef drew a sharp knife across its throat. The blood spurted onto the altar. Josef held up a bowl to catch the last drops.
The sheep which they had stolen for the sacrifice had been scrubbed clean and its hair combed. It had a broad sash about its waist, the knotted end tied into a bow. Olukoya gripped its body between his knees, held its mouth shut and pulled its head back towards him, stretching its neck.
The drums fell quiet. All knelt and prayed. The clear tones of a struck bell rippled across the clearing. A calabash rattle joined. The sheep struggled. Ama wondered whether a sheep could foresee its own end as humans can.
The knife did its work and the sheep’s blood spurted into the bowl. The drums rolled, celebrating the sacrifice. Olukoya raised the bowl and poured some of the blood upon the clay altar.
Then Jacinta stepped forward. She spoke for the BaKongo; and for the others who had been brought to Bahia from the barracoons of Luanda and Loango and Benguela in Angola. Their ancestors from the ancient states of Tio and Loango and Ndongo had been crossing the Atlantic to Bahia, though not by choice, for the past two hundred and fifty years. The Angolans asked Jacinta to speak for them because they knew that since she had lost her hands, Tempu had frequently entered her body and taken possession of her spirit.
She pulled Ama forward with her right stump. Kneeling before an open bowl she drew Ama down after her. She pressed her stump into the bowl, charging it with powdery dry white clay. She tried to draw on the ground but failed. She signed to Ama to help her. Ama took a handful of the powder, watching Jacinta’s eyes. Jacinta mimed to her to sprinkle the powder on the ground in a circle and then to draw a cross within the circle in the same way. She nodded her approval and then showed Ama that she should draw two circles on her face, one around each eye.
Ama stood up and stepped back. Jacinta slowly lowered her head towards the circle on the ground.
“Oh Tempu,” she chanted,
“let this circle become a mirror.
“In it show us the faces of the pretos velhos,
“of the spirits of all who have come this way before us.
“Invest the power of our ancestors in us.
“Let it shine forth from us with a blinding radiance.
“Here at this cross roads,
“where this great tree sinks its roots into the ground,
“where the clearing meets the forest,
“where the darkness of night meet the dawn of a new day,
“give us the vision to see into your world.”
“In the evening the sun descends into the underworld of darkness.
“Yet every day it rises again,
“in a new dawn.
“The cycle is without end.
“So it is with our lives.
“When we die we too enter the world of night,
“Where the sparks of departed souls light up the sky.
“And yet we too are reborn.
“So it is with all living things:
“birth, maturity, death and rebirth.”
A breath of wind lifted the ribbon of white cloth which hung from the tree and it fluttered, rising and falling. Ama followed the eyes of the crippled woman. Jacinta’s shoulders were trembling as if the force which had lifted the bunting, had taken possession of her too.
“I see your spirit moving in your flag.
“I know that you have heard me.
“Move us, as you, too, move.
“Take us with you on your road.
“Intercede for us with Nzambi Mpungu,
“Lord of all Creation.
“Heal the shattered edges of our souls; restore our injured bodies;
“Make our spirits round as the sun is round.
“Help us to stand tall and straight and whole as this tree which guards your spirit.”
She rose and signing to Ama to follow with the bowl, went to one corner of the clearing. With the stump of her right arm she drew a circle in the soft topsoil, and divided it into four quadrants. In each she drew a different symbol. Ama took a handful of the white powder and dribbled it into the shallow grooves. Jacinta stepped back, then dropped to her knees again and bowed before the symbol.
“With this sacred white clay,
“I make the sign of the dawn
“And the seal of your world.”
Then they repeated the performance three more times, defining the corners of the clearing. Josef stepped forward and dribbled blood on Tempu’s altar.
Gregório, he who had run away from the engenho and been recaptured, spoke for the Ewe, neighbors of the Akan and the Yoruba, known in Bahia as Gêge. Gregório had fought for the Anlo in a war against the Ge. He had been captured and sold. Now, too late, he brooded on the futility of Ewe fighting Ewe, African fighting African. Only the white men benefited from those wars.
Josef spoke for the Akan, the Fanti of the coast and the Asante of the hinterland, known in Bahia as Minas. He poured libation with rum, invoking the spirits of the ancestors. Then three times he lifted the bowl from the tree of god and placed it on Ama’s head.
Ignacio Gomes, the leather worker, a free man, half Tupi, half Kongo, was next.
Ignacio was a man of few words. To both the slaves and their masters he was an enigma.
The Senhor recognized and valued his consummate skill as a craftsman. He feared that a misplaced word might drive the man from his employment; and so he ordered Vasconcellos and his white and mulatto minions to treat Ignacio with the greatest circumspection.
The slaves found it difficult to understand why he stayed on at the engenho, poorly paid and poorly housed as he was. After all he was a free man. He could leave at any time. In Salvador, with his skills, he would surely prosper as an independent artisan.
The answer to the riddle lay in the roots which bound Ignacio to the soil. His father’s ancestors had worshipped at a forest shrine at the very site where the Christian chapel now stood. Through him flowed the ancient spirits of this land, the caboclos; and in him they merged with the spirits which his mother had brought from Africa. He was the curator, the custodian, of these lands.
Portuguese rule, he knew, was no more than a brief episode. In time the ancient spirits of the place would reassert their power and swallow up the white man and his religion.
Ignacio wore only a loin cloth. He had painted patterns on his body with the dark blue dye of the jenipapo fruit. He spoke quietly. Though the drums were silent, the others had to strain their ears to hear him.
“Great Tupi gods,
“spirits of the forest,
“spirits of Ai the sloth and Tatu the armadillo;
“of Capibara the water hog and Tamanduá the anteater of the night;
“of spotted Paca;
“of Macahuba the macaw, Seriema the crane and Tucano the toucan.
“Great Tupi gods,
“Welcome the gods of Africa who have come to live amongst us;
“Welcome Oxóssi, armed with his bow and arrow, protector of the hunter;
“Welcome Tempu the tempest, the storm which plants its seed in woman.
“Tustáo and Flecha Negro, Pai Joaquin and Mãe Maria.
“in your honor we dress the neck of this pot in feathers.
“Free of our bodies.
“Lend us the power of birds to soar above the earth.
“Make us invincible.
“Return our land to us.”
He made obeisance before the tree and withdrew quietly.
Now it was Ama’s turn. She had been considering nervously what contribution she might make. Back home it was the Owner of the Earth who poured to the earth and the oldest man, the senior elder, who held the people, held the earth. Their prayers were always concerned with the fertility of the soil, good rains, freedom from destructive winds; the fertility of women; or the success of the hunt. She would certainly not pray for the success of the sugar harvest and it seemed trivial, after the powerful invocations she had heard, to petition the ancestors for blessings on their tiny allotments. As to praying for the fertility of women, it would be nonsensical: they would only be making more slaves for the Senhor. Moreover, the animals which were the totems of the clans, leopard, crocodile, cobra, hyena, did not live in this country. She could speak to Itsho, but her relationship with his spirit was too private, too personal, too intense to display amongst these strangers.
Olukoya looked at her. She shook her head. He nodded. It seemed that he understood.
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When they returned to the other clearing the pots were already simmering.
The sheep was gutted, skinned and butchered. Luis dos Santos the wag, who was here too, praised the Senhor for what he called his “gifts.” While the food was cooking, the men busied themselves with weeding the clearings.
“Josef, Ama, please come,” Bernardo called. “Bring a bowl of garapa.”
He led them some way into the bush. He put down the axe he was carrying and indicated a tree.
“What do you think?” he asked, “This part at the bottom I will hollow out for a great war drum. From the part above I will be able to make five or six atabaques or batás.”
They approved his choice.
“Be my witnesses,” he told them.
He raised the bowl.
“Hear my voice, spirit of this noble tree. I bring you this drink. I water your roots.”
He poured some liquor from the bowl.
“I beg your forgiveness for destroying your abode. Enter, I beg you, into the drums which I will carve from the wood of your tree. Teach the hands of the drummer. Let no harm come from anything I do today.”
He put the bowl down and slowly lifted the axe. Josef and Ama retired to a safe distance to watch.
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Olukoya led the procession. The drummers beat out a quiet slow rhythm with their hands.
At the entrance to the shrine they halted. Olukoya genuflected briefly. Then he went forward and laid a plate of chicken stew before the altar. Speaking Portuguese, he invoked the spirit of Eshù and gave notice of his offering. One by one the others followed. Each man removed the cloth from his shoulder and wrapped it round his waist; the women removed their head-ties. Each bore a gift; for Obatálá a plate of white rice or the fermented corn called ekó, wrapped in plantain leaves; for Oshun, chicken and honey; for Yemoja, wild orchids; for Tempu, a pair of cow horns; and fresh greens and coconut for the other gods. Shangó’s plate, with a hot red peppered mutton stew, was made of wood, for his spirit is too hot for fragile pottery.
Instead of food some laid personal gifts which they had brought: a precious cowrie, smuggled from Africa; a ball of soap; for Oshun the treasured feather of a parrot, a brass trinket or smooth stones from the bed of the tumbling stream which ran behind the clearing.
Finally, when all had delivered their offerings, Olukoya stepped forward again.
“great god of vengeance, intercessor for mankind,
“we come again in peace, to greet you.
“We cool your brows with this fresh water from the river.”
“Great gods of Africa and Brazil, and all our ancestors,” he called, “we greet you again. May your spirits descend upon us.”
He gave a signal and in an sudden explosion of violent rhythm three drummers struck the taut skin of their drums with short baquetas, making them speak now with a voice so loud that it would be heard back at the engenho; agôgô was beaten with its iron rod; xaque-xaque and chocalho shook; and in the background the sweet tones of the marimba rose and fell. At this signal, the worshippers began to dance. Counter-clockwise they shuffled round before the spirit-laden fig tree, rotating their hips, slapping thighs and chest, circling, snapping fingers in a miscellany of dancing styles.
Olukoya led a dance in honor of each Yoruba orisha in turn. As always, the virile Eshù, keeper of the gate, was first. The rhythm was new to Ama. She was shy at first, watching the movements of the others for a clue. Some mimicked Olukoya, learning; others, immersing themselves in the spirit of the drums, improvised, some gracefully, some with furious gyrations and stamping. For was there one of them who had not learned to dance, strapped to his mother’s back, before he could walk? This was the first time Ama had danced since landing on the soil of Bahia. She relaxed and lost herself in the music. Beneath the soles of her feet she felt the crushed dry leaves of the forest floor.
Obatálá was next. Olukoya put on a brilliant white cloth to honor the god of spotless repute. Obatálá’s dance was gentle and graceful. As he danced, Olukoya sang a poem of praise to the transparent honesty of the incorruptible judge and prayed for the perfect peace and tranquillity which only this paragon of gods can grant. He called Jacinta into the circle to dance with him for Obatálá is the protector of the handicapped. And he made her laugh; he made them all laugh with joy.
Shangó’s dance, by contrast, was violent in the extreme. Olukoya swung Bernardo’s axes in wild arcs which threatened the lives and limbs of the circle of dancers, who fled in terror. In the dance he seemed to take on the god’s identity, to become Lord Shangó himself, Shangó the dangerous, Shangó the leopard who leaps down to earth like a bolt of lightning. (The drummers made a drum speak in the voice of a leopard.) Shangó, father of twins. Shangó, who rewards moral courage in the face of great danger and temptation. Olukoya’s eyes bulged. Shangó, who sends thunder from a cloudless sky. (The drums thundered.) Shangó, who made the first batá drums, and taught them to play with the flash and roar of the squall which turns into a tempest. Shangó who breathes out fire and smoke, the flash of whose lightning is like a sharp knife drawn across the eye of the liar; Shangó, whose fire consumes those who dare to transgress custom and morality. Shangó who throws us his thunder stones from heaven. Shangó: fire and water in the heavens. Shangó on his horse Erinla.
Olukoya was exhausted. He went and lay down on the cool earth. His wife, Ayodele, danced for Shangó’s wife Oshun, beautiful goddess of sweet water and love, a gentle, graceful dance. She mimed the stalking female leopard, she danced the dance of Oshun the coquette and epicure, carrying the narrow-necked pot with smooth river stones and cool river water in it, like the water from the river at Oshogbo which bears her name. She danced with a flash of fire in her eyes. She was transformed into the river Oshun. She mimed sexual ecstasy in a way that made it chaste and pure.
Olukoya joined her. Together they placed two horns upon the altar in tribute to Oya, wife of Ogún and mother of Shangó’s twins. Then they danced. The swirling river Niger, Oya’s home, was in their dance; the whirlwind; the zigzag of lightning; sudden conflagration; night; and sudden death, for Oya is mistress of the shades, mother of the faceless, of the masked Egúngún.
Olukoya struck the horns together.
“Oya, I summon your presence,” he sang. “Destroyer of worlds. You alone amongst the gods can still the charging buffalo, seizing its horns and conquering its fierce anger. Mother of nine children, mother of ninecolors. Oya spare us. Oya guide us. Oya protect us.”
Ayodele joined him again. Separately and intertwined, they danced for Oshumare, an undulating, flowing dance, sinuous, spiraling, looping, serpentine, ambiguous, at once both male and female.
Olukoya danced alone for Ogún, supergod amongst the gods, immune to swords, immune to bullets. He placed two knives upon the altar and Ayodele poured oil on them to invoke the spirit of the god. Ogún, master of iron and steel, red-handed, fierce and unshrinking, Ogún, god of war, who fears only defeat.
This was a dance full of savage energy, extravagant flourishes, terrifying war cries. Ama thought she saw Olukoya miming a struggle for freedom, a war against their masters.
“Ogún, sustain us in the battles to come,” he called out as if to confirm her instinct.
“Ogún, sustain us in the battles to come,” the others chorused.
When he had finished dancing for Ogún, Olukoya sank to his knees before the altar. Then he stretched out, face down, upon the ground, arms extended. The drums were silent. No one spoke. The only sounds were those of the water on the stones and the wind rustling the branches of the trees. After an immeasurable time he rose and washed his hands and face. Then he called those who danced with him closer and in a low voice, explained.
“I was praying to the most dangerous of all orishas,” he told them, “he whose name must not be spoken aloud. I was captured and sent into slavery before I was able to master the secret of his dance. I know only that a single wrong step can arouse his anger and bring his wrath down upon the whole community.”
He jabbed his face repeatedly with his index finger, miming the dreaded smallpox.
“You understand? So I prayed only for forgiveness for not honoring him this day, because of my own ignorance.”
“And now I have one last duty to be done for which I need your help. Please take a bowl or calabash each, empty it onto the ground and follow me. We are not going far.”
He led them into the knee deep river. Its bed was full of rounded stones, which the current lifted slightly and then put down again. The sun penetrated the forest canopy here, sparkled on the surface, and lit up the stones in the bed with a rippling light.
“We have come to honor Yemoja, who lives in the Ogún river but also in all living waters. If you stand quite still, you will hear her speaking to you.”
It was difficult to keep one’s balance: the bed was loose and irregular and the current swift. Ama almost fell. Then there was a splash behind her and a scream. One of the other women had fallen into the water. Those by her pulled her to her feet. Her cloth was dripping.
“Yemoja has selected her favorite daughter from amongst us,” Olukoya told them when the laughing stopped.
“Now bend and pick a stone or two and put it in your vessel. Be careful now. We want no more accidents. Then fill your vessel with water and go and put it under the roots of the fig tree.”
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While the drummers and the dancers rested and refreshed themselves with maté, Ama, after asking permission, took up a drum.
At home this was not woman’s work, but here things were different. She experimented. First something Itsho used to play for her. Then she tried her hand at adowa, which Esi had taught her to dance in Kumase. The drummers listened, at first amused by the thought of a woman invading their territory, then intrigued by a rhythm they had not heard before. Tentatively, quietly, they fell in with her beat. Ama was excited. She knew the music in her head. Now, without any training, she found that she could make the drum speak. After a fashion. Imperfectly. But well enough for someone to dance to.
The dancers were drifting back. The third drummer came to reclaim his drum. He, too, took up the rhythm.
“Show us,” he commanded with a nod of his head.
Ama hesitated. The man had a strip of cloth wound around his forehead to keep the sweat from running into his eyes.
“May I?” she asked him.
Then, alone in the center of the ring of watchers, she danced adowa, slightly bent at the waist, the cloth stretched taut to keep her hands a palm’s width apart, one hand above and then below the other, the movements of her feet controlled, deliberate, turning her head this way and that, looking first upwards and then down at her feet, stooping, bending at the knee, circling, straightening up, lost in the flowing beat. Then others came to join her, mimicking the elegance and refinement of her movements, as if to make fun of her, but learning. When the drummers stopped at last, the dancers clapped their hands for Ama and she, in turn, applauded them and then the drummers, too.
Jacinta danced for Tempu in the center of the circle. She started slowly but then a change seemed to come over her. Ama noticed her open stare: she saw nothing around her. Her eyes were blank, unfocussed, looking inwards. She seemed to be overtaken by some sort of ecstasy, beyond herself. The spirit of Tempu possessed her and she began to chant in a language none understood and none heard her speak on ordinary days. It seemed that she was Tempu’s vehicle, that he spoke through her. She seemed to have become Tempu. She was Tempu.
Ama wondered whether she was mad. She had seen a similar performance several times in Kumase. The akomfo in their grass skirts and whitened faces also spoke in tongues. An assistant would translate for the benefit of those who did not understand the language of the spirit world.
Behind her hand Esi had laughed.
“Charlatans. Crooks. Confidence tricksters,” she had said. “They take your gold. If you pay them enough they will say anything you ask of them. But beware, if you persuade them to say something that offends the Asantehene, or his interests, and he comes to hear of it, he will deal with the offending okomfo summarily. Do you understand?”
Esi had drawn a finger across her throat.
Jacinta’s nose began to bleed. First a trickle. She paid no attention. Olukoya signaled to the drummers and they slowed their tempo. Now her nose was bleeding badly. She seemed unaware. The drumming stopped. Jacinta sank to the ground. Her eyes opened. Ama rushed to her with a cloth and squeezed her nostrils.
“Breathe through your mouth,” she told her.
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Olukoya brought his bowl and came to sit by her.
“Well, sister Ama,” he asked, “How did you find it?”
“I’m glad I came,” she answered. “Thank you for asking me.”
“I am sorry we didn’t ask you earlier. We have to be careful, though. I think you understand that?”
Lost in her own thoughts, she ignored his question.
“I feel free,” she said. “It was as if I was carrying some great burden, like a hunchback’s hump upon my back. Now, suddenly, it’s gone.”
“That’s what this is all about.”
“One day,” he continued, “this country will be ours. Orunmila tells me so and my own intelligence confirms it. We are many; they are few. In the course of time our numbers will tell. In the meantime, we must prepare. We must get to know one another, to build up trust amongst us. We must learn whatever there is to learn from the whites. I mean useful things, like reading and writing, making sugar, building ships. We must make plans. But above all, we must preserve ourselves, our own beliefs and customs. We must restore our self respect. If we begin to believe that Africans are natural slaves, the first battle will be lost and we might never recover. Do you understand what I am saying? What we do here is part of all this.
“Our brothers and sisters in Salvador are the key. Salvador is like the hub of one of Bernardo’s cart wheels. Every engenho has links with the city. Those links are kept alive by the carters and the boatmen, by brothers like Josef. Here in the Recôncavo we have the numbers, but it is difficult for us toorganize ourselves. It is the slaves in Salvador that must mobilize our Crioulo and mulatto brothers. It is they that must do the planning and give us the leadership. When they are ready and give the signal, every engenho in the Recôncavo will rise up. And when that happens, the country will be ours, just as Palmares was ours.
“Our greatest enemy is not the whites. It is our own disunity. They know that, of course, and they encourage it. Their Christian religion is one of the weapons they use to divide us. That, by the way, was why I was disturbed when you told me the book you were reading was their Bible.”
“Bra Olukoya,” Ama interrupted, “I told you I am not a Christian. If I were to tell you the story of how I came to be here you would know that I will never become a Christian. But the Bible is a wonderful book all the same. It is full of marvelous stories. And it is the only book I have.”
“I do not doubt your word,” he replied. “You must tell us some of these stories. Perhaps we can learn something useful from them. What I hate about the Christians is their arrogance. They tell us that we are pagans, that we worship many gods. They tell us that there is only one god, the one they worship; but they are hypocrites. They themselves have many gods. They worship Jesus and Mary and they have hundreds of saints whom they worship too. How does that differ from us, I ask you? We also have one supreme god, Olodumare. We worship him through the many orishas who are all his children..”
They were silent for a while.
“Bra Olukoya,” she said hesitantly, “there is one thing that worries me.”
“What is that my sister?”
“I felt the power of your gods today and of Tempu too. Our gods are not so strong. We ask them to bring us rain, good hunting and fishing and to preserve us from the winds that destroy our crops. And even in those small things they often fail. It is hardly surprising that they could not save us from being captured and sold into slavery. But you yourself, you were serving the gods. How is it that they could allow you to be captured by your enemies?”
“Sister Ama,” he laughed, “at home if you had asked such a question you might have had your head cut off. I must admit that it has troubled me too, though I have never spoken to anyone else about it before. All I can say is that I do not know the answer. The ways of the gods are inscrutable. Sometimes they come to our aid; sometimes it as if they have not heard us or even. . . .”
“Nothing,” he replied, “just an idle unworthy thought which came unbidden into my head. Slavery does strange things to us, you know. I am not immune.”
They were silent again.
“Bra Olukoya, you mentioned Palmares. I have heard the name before. Bra Josef mentioned it when I first came here. He said that once I knew Portuguese I would hear the story.”
“Good idea,” Olukoya replied. “We are all packed and ready to leave, but we mustn’t go too early or we might be seen arriving. We can fill the time telling of Palmares. Like the knowledge of our gods, it is something we must nurture and pass on from generation to generation. It is a story that even we, who have come from Africa only recently, can be proud of.”
He rose to his feet.
“Brothers and sisters. Please gather round. Sister Ama has asked for the story of Palmares. It can never be retold too often and it will fill the time until we are ready to return to the engenho.”
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“How old is Esperança, do you think?”
“Maybe eighty,” someone volunteered.
“Let’s say she is eighty. This is a story of long ago. It started a hundred years before Esperança was born; and when it ended she was still not yet born.”
“It has not ended,” said Olukoya.
“My brother, you are right. It lives on in our memories. It is part of our present and of our future. One day we will honor the Palmarinos in public, not furtively, as we have to do today.”
“The story, the story!”
“All right, all right. The story! Let me begin at the beginning. Even the very first slaves whom the Portuguese brought to these shores from Africa ran away into the bush. They ran away even before they had learned the Portuguese language. . . .”
And so he told the long story of the independent African state which flourished for a hundred years in the forests of Brazil, pausing only from time to time to wet his throat or to point a moral which the tale revealed.
“Do you know what the worst thing was that we lost when we were taken into slavery? Of course you do. It was our families. Suddenly we had no grandparents, no fathers or mothers, no uncles or aunts, no brothers or sisters, husbands or wives, no children; no one to bury us with proper ceremony when we died, to send us to join our ancestors. Now, in Palmares, they began to build new families. The slaves regained some of their humanity and their children and grandchildren became complete human beings again.
“But this was something that the whites could not accept. They did not go to all that trouble and risk to bring Africans across the ocean in order that we should be human beings, citizens, Brazilians, senhores even. No, they brought us here for one purpose and one purpose only: to work us to death making their accursed sugar, that useless rubbish. So they determined to crush Palmares.”
He told them of the repeated attempts by the Portuguese and Dutch to conquer the twenty thousand Palmarinos and their king, the Ganga-zumba. He told them how the last Ganga-zumba negotiated secretly with the enemy and how his treachery was discovered and punished. He told them how the war continued under the leadership of their military commander, the Zumbi.
When he came to the end he said, “I have finished my story for today, but the story is not yet finished.”
“You have spoken well, my brother,” said Olukoya. “The struggle goes on even today. Soon after I was landed in Salvador, I heard about the heroic defence of the quilombo of Carlota in Matta Grosso and two years later news reached us that there was a war in progress in which an army of slaves had joined with our Tupi brothers to conquer a vast area in the state of San Jose de Maranhão.”
“Bra Olukoya. . . .” asked Ama.
“Why do we of the Engenho de Cima not plan and just slip away one dark night and find a place to set up a quilombo of our own? Even here?”
“That’s a question I have often asked myself, my sister, ever since I first heard the Palmares story. I think the answer must be that times have changed. Over the years the Portuguese have destroyed more and more of the forest to open up land for sugar and tobacco. If you go to the top of next hill and then climb a tree, you can look out over a plain where there are only patches of forest with vast open spaces in between. Grassland that is good for cattle, but bad for quilombos. With their superior arms the militias would find us and wipe us out in days. There is no way we could hold out like the Palmarinos did. They are even growing sugar now on Palmares land.
“No, if we want our freedom, if want to destroy slavery in this country, we will have to be more ambitious. We will all have to rise up together, those in Salvador and those of us in the Recôncavo. When the time comes, the smoke from the burning cane fields will be our signal. It will not be long now, but we still have much to do.”
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